A sprinkling of rain could not have come soon enough for the volunteers and professional crews who are working around-the-clock to make gains on fires threatening homes and lives across eastern and southern Australia.
But while Sunday’s cooler conditions brought moments of relief after a horror 48 hours, firefighters know this is no time for celebration.
As of 8am Monday, two fires in Victoria’s far east were still at an emergency level and a total of 31 blazes were burning across the state. Four people remained missing in the blazes that have already claimed two lives, and towns are still cut off from the outside world by surrounding flames.
“The state of disaster remains and if people are asked to leave, and they can leave, then you must leave,” Premier Dan Andrews said.
In NSW, more than 130 bushfires were burning, including more than 60 uncontained. Two were subject to a watch-and-act alert.
Authorities have so far counted 60 homes destroyed just at the weekend in NSW blazes. That number is certain to grow as crews make their way into fire-ravaged areas to assess the damage.
In the far south, Eden residents who had endured a terrifying Sunday surrounded by orange skies have been able to return to their homes as crews continued battling the Border Fire which has scorched 271,000 hectares since igniting west of the Victorian town Mallacoota.
Tensions had been high in the town when residents who had already fled home to take shelter at the wharf were told the area was no longer safe and they needed to get to Bega or Merimbula instead.
Comedian Celeste Barber – who has led a campaign to raise millions for communities – shared a video of her mother-in-law who lives near Eden.
“This fire is Australia’s war,” Joy Robin said while asking for more defence resources to be directed to her hometown.
She said she felt the community had been left “high and dry”, prompting Barber to retort that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had better not try to shake her mother-in-law’s hand.
— Celeste barber (@celestebarber_) January 5, 2020
RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told the ABC he was “comfortable” for Eden residents to return home.
He said he was content for the community to be given some time to recover, after a “rough” day and night.
“There is an enormous amount of fire in that part of the world, these are not going to go out for some time,” he said.
“We have been dealing with the fires non-stop now for more for five months and I can’t see that changing over the next month.
“It makes you think … just where that will end.”
Fire danger ratings on Monday will be high or low-moderate across much of the state, with only parts of the state’s north experiencing “very high” risk.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said NSW was in “unchartered territory”.
“The weather activity we’re seeing, the extent and spread of the fires, the speed at which they’re going, the way in which they’re attacking communities who’ve never ever seen fire before, is unprecedented,” she said on Sunday.
The cool weather that has brought relief to Victoria will continue on Monday, with showers expected to give firefighters some much-needed respite before the heat returns later in the week.
The fire danger rating forecast for East Gippsland and the north east of Victoria on Monday is low to moderate, with temperatures of under 20C forecast.
The intense fire activity in the southeast and northeast of Victoria, however, is producing hazardous smoke conditions that are likely to worsen on Monday, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) said.
Parts of the state are listed as having “very poor” air quality by 7am Monday.
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As of 6.30am, emergency warnings were in place for East Gippsland communities in the path of bushfires at Cann Valley and in the Drummer and Merremingger state forests.
In fire-devastated Kangaroo Island, off the South Australian coast, an army of helpers is expected to arrive on Monday to help with relief efforts.
They will have two days to clean up and make gains on blazes still burning ahead of Wednesday when temperatures are predicted to rise.
A “watch and act” alert was issued for Stokes Bay near Lathami Conservation Park on the island’s north coast early on Monday as a scrub fire threatened the area.
A bushfire advice remains in place for the western half of the island with the eastern edge of the fireground extending from the north to the south coast.
Already the fires there have wiped out about a third of the 160km-long island and taken with them about half of the local koala population. Farmers are being forced to shoot dead burnt livestock.
It follows the tragic news that the blazes had claimed the lives of father and son locals Dick and Clayton Lang.
Meanwhile, as the crisis continues to make headlines overseas one of America’s largest and most battle-hardened firefighting agencies said it stands ready to help their “Australian brothers and sisters” – but has not been asked.
Cal Fire, California’s main firefighting agency, is willing to send firefighters to Australia to help battle the catastrophic bushfires. But the US government has not issued a request at the state level.
US federal agencies have answered Australia’s call by sending more than 100 firefighters, including some from California.
The Australian devastation has been a major news story in the US in the past week and Cal Fire took to Twitter to explain to concerned Californians why it has not deployed to Australia.
“Having experienced firsthand the devastation that wildfires can create, we share your concern about the wildfires currently ravaging Australia and are closely monitoring the situation,” Cal Fire said on Twitter.
“While we are ready to lend our support at any moment, it is strategically vital that we do not self-deploy and that we work with the international aide system.”
US and Australian firefighting agencies have built strong bonds with exchanges of resources in times of need over the past 15 years.
Australian firefighters helped California when the state faced historic fires in the past two years.
Cal Fire has 6500 employees and the force jumps to 9000 with the addition of seasonal firefighters during the fire season.
“We work closely with our Australian brothers and sisters in the fire service and will continue to foster our relationship and ongoing collaboration,” Cal Fire said.
“We stand with the people of Australia who have supported us during our catastrophic wildfires and continue to stand ready to answer their call.”